Is there a Plan B?
What on earth is going on in Bangladesh, asks Farid Bakht, looking at the current crisis through the eyes of the Non-Resident Bangladeshi community
For non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) the news is depressing, distressing, and, in some ways, embarrassing. Having returned to London after four and a half years, I find there has been a boom in information channels. NRBs are much better informed now than they were in the late 1990s. It was not always so.
Liberation to millennium
It was common for NRBs to meet up in their restaurants. Their first question was: "Taka rate koto?" or "What's the rate of the taka?" The businessmen (primarily in catering and branching into garments and leather) would salt away money regularly and buy land "back home." There wasn't much else to buy. Whenever they traveled back, the Aeroflot (yes many, including I, would travel on those rickety planes on cheap tickets) or Biman aircraft must have been like a caravan -- full of treasures, primarily household goods down to soap and toothpaste.
After catching up with the family gossip, they would survey the country. What did they find?
The period after 1973 must have been a hugely disappointing time, as the Awami League administration proved that it was competent in street agitation, waving black flags and fighting elections. It had not prepared for government. It showed. Its low point was the 1974 famine. 1975 was a watershed year with the introduction of "Baksal", or one party state. The concentration of power became worse after the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family in August. Coup and counter-coup led to the attempt to force through a hard-left sepoy rebellion in November. Most of the officers were caught.
History would have been different if they had continued the killing spree with the chief of the general staff, Zia. He was as surprised as the rest when he was, instead, installed as the president. He repaid the leader of the rebels, another war hero, disabled Colonel Taher, with a kangaroo court and execution. Zia was respected for his personal incorruptibility, which is surprising when all around were robbing the state blind. His rule however had a very dark side in the summary executions of thousands, and a score of attempted military coups.
He formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), using today's LDP head honcho, Dr B Chowdhury, as its chief organizer. Ideology and background were immaterial as long as the end result was a shift away from India and Russia, i.e. back to the Pakistani obsession with America.
The BNP was a motley crew of incompatible left and right wingers, and many losers from 1971. To gain credibility, they tinkered with the constitution. Bengali became Bangladeshi. The four principles of the constitution were smashed. Saudi Arabia, that beacon of democracy and freedom, became a firm supporter. It, along with other Gulf states, opened its doors to migrants to build its roads and buildings. Custodian of the holy places, it treated Bangladeshi citizens inhumanely, they though Dhaka was grateful for the millions of dollars in remittances.
The BNP fell apart after another general stole power. Zia was murdered. His vice president lasted a few months. Zia's widow used to accuse the then chief of staff of her husband's death. The person in question was a supposedly un-ambitious general, stuck in West Pakistan and, therefore, with no glorious record to display.
Ershad, however, proved to be adept in the chess game of a military dictator staying in power. The politicians used to deride him for vacillation. His self-appointed title of "Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA)" became "Cancel My Last Announcement." He had the last laugh, though. HM Ershad became known as His Majesty Ershad. He drove around in that famous Pajero jeep for nine long years, surveying destruction.
Corruption became institutionalized. Foreign aid paid for most bills. English was demoted. Islam became the state religion. Those who had never fought for freedom needed to show that were the most patriotic. Even if it looked suspiciously like a step back towards East Pakistan.
Democracy made a comeback in 1991. Corruption became sleeker. A middle class emerged. No longer did NRBs bring back tubes of toothpaste. Dhaka city had begun its boom. Shopping centres and apartments made their appearance.
A few million poorly paid illiterate women were put to work in front of sewing machines. A new breed of businessmen called this an industry, forgetting that it meant that they were obliged to pay living wages. Some people got ahead of themselves with a Dhaka Stock Exchange on fire. Hitting 4,000, even London's Financial Times noticed. Ministers and the "elite" proudly called this an emerging tiger. The euphoria did not last long. Tens of thousands of people lost their savings when the leading businessmen of this country pulled the plug and ran off with millions.
Banks were systematically looted. Whenever you see a "distinguished businessmen" find out whether he has repaid any loan back to a bank. It usually turns out that he is a director in one, and thought that a bank was merely a private piggy-bank to dip into.
Looking from afar, the NRBs did not celebrate the achievements of Bangladesh on that millennium night.
New century, new dreams
Mobile phones, cars, and credit cards are the ultimate proof that Dhaka's middle class has arrived. NRBs expect to see a new building, shopping complex, and new roads on every visit, such is the speed of construction. They don't buy much land now, having inflated the price of Sylheti paddy fields to international levels. They don't even have to fly in to purchase.
Satellite TV channels advertise "villas" and high rise apartments in new townships. NRBs snap them up. Not only are they found in professional occupations in the US and in Europe, they have seen the taka plummet in value with every passing year. One pound sterling would have bought less than Tk 80 on New Year's Day 2001. Today, it is worth over Tk 135, and rising. Twenty years ago, it only fetched Tk 40.
The NRB no longer rings Sonali Bank to know the taka rate -- he can get the latest prices online, can call Bangladesh for a few cents a minute and can read a clutch of newspapers in his local halal butcher's shop or, better still, on the newspaper's website.
Some NRBs are reading The Daily Star in London six hours before their cousins in Dhaka wake up to the same headlines. They are also watching the same NTV or ATN for news or drama. An NRB feels that he or she is informed, without the hassle of experiencing the miseries that befall the citizens of Sylhet, Chittagong, or Dhaka.
Some are complacent and patronizing. They have given up any pretence of ever "going back." They have done well for themselves and are enjoying the comforts of a debt-induced lifestyle, though everyone knows they have to struggle day and night to pay the mortgage.
Another set of NRBs still maintains that Bangladesh has a future for them. They want to believe that this can be a Thailand, if not a Malaysia. That some decent leaders will turn up from somewhere. That politicians will stop bickering, lying, and screaming insults at microphones. That leaders will display some pride, and not wait on every announcement by third rate ambassadors as if they were royalty. That the ostentatious elite would take a break from stealing and look around and see that they were living on a small island of artificial wealth in a sea of utter poverty.
NRBs are emotional. Sentimental. Still hanging on after decades of betrayal. They will not be going to vote in January 2007, or whenever the next election is called. They can send the money to pay for the electricity to light up Gulshan (in between load-shedding). They have no right to vote. They wonder what that minister for expatriate welfare did in his tenure since 2002. They would have to know his name first.
Despite all the news channels and the internet, NRBs do not have the day-to-day knowledge that comes with living in the heaving metropolis of Dhaka. They can miss the nuances of the latest passion gripping the civil society leaders and media opinion formers.
However, by being far away they have an opportunity of seeing the bigger picture.
What can they conclude as 2007 beckons?
They see that not very much has changed. We still need the Saudis to generate remittances. Ershad is still there. So are all the Jamaati collaborators.
They see that the BNP has morphed into three. The rump, personified by Saifur Rahman and the General's widow, Queen Khaleda. They probably recognize the "new" Liberal Democratic Party as BNP II or even the original BNP, as those guilty of bringing BNP into this world are now its leaders, once again. The new, new BNP of Tariq seems like a more straightforward group of thugs. You know where you stand with them, or you don't because you need to run a mile away from them.
The Awami League wears the same dinky half-cut black coat. It is still shutting down the country as it has, on and off, for half a century. It still pretends to be left of centre, forgetting that it dallied with Jamaat and is guilty of pandering to the mullahs by patronizing madrassas, not because of any faith but to seem more "Islamic."
Many older NRBs still have a soft spot for the League, remembering 1969. They, however, must feel uncomfortable with the obvious lack of any drive or suggestion that the Awami League of 2007 will really lead the nation into development. It still gives the impression that it wants to settle scores. The Old Guard don't want to shift, frustrating the bright young things.
It is frightening to see that all debate is still couched as if we were living in the seventies. Not only do they look the same, these leaders dress the same and make the same speeches -- as if they were in Dhaka University campus in 1975 or 1989.
Politics seems to have been left behind by the speed of urban (and even rural) change.
Is it not heartbreaking that out of nearly 150 million, so many of the same tired old leaders, or one or two royal offspring, still monopolize the microphone?
In their dreams, NRBs would like to fly to Dhaka and throttle the shameless excuse for a president, for his appalling partisan behaviour. They would then grab Abdul Jalil and Mannan Bhuiyan, lock them together in a room, and tell them to come up with a decent compromise.
Not far off, 40 years after "chhoi dofa" or the "Six Point" program that galvanized the move against the absurdity of Pakistan, the NRB watches helplessly as political parties on all sides rip apart a sovereign country.
Reading and watching, it seems that a flawed democracy is taking a suicide pill.
They must be wondering if there is going to be a Plan B.
Plan A has been an unmitigated disaster.
I must end by saying that I do not claim to speak on behalf of all NRBs. That would not be possible. NRBs are as disunited as the rest of you. Sorry.
Farid Bakht is the author of Bangladesh: Arrival or Departure? (forthcoming).